Robert David Hall Spread

Robert David Hall - Interview by Chet Cooper

In a scene from CBS’ hit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Robert David Hall’s character, medical examiner Al Robbins, MD, is interrupted as he jams to the radio and nails a complicated riff on his air guitar. His talent is natural, his guitar—a crutch. While many writers feel the need to center a part around the character’s disability, the crutch’s sometimes doubling as an air guitar is the extent of its scripted role in this No. 1 drama. Robbins is not defined by his disability, but rather the assistance he is able to provide to investigators of Las Vegas’ CSI unit by applying his extensive knowledge of forensic pathology.

A seasoned actor, Hall has appeared in such films as Starship Troopers and The Negotiator, as well as the Emmy award-winning TNT mini-series Andersonville. His television roles have included guest appearances on Family Law, The Practice and The West Wing, to name a very few. His voice has been heard in hundreds of commercials, animated series and narrations.

One of the most prominent actors with a disability working today, Hall found that his role as a burn survivor in Michael Apted’s film Class Action closely paralleled real life. In 1978, an 18-wheel truck struck Hall’s car and he was severely burned when his gas tank exploded. After several months in a burn unit and the amputation of both legs, he now walks comfortably on two prosthetic limbs.

Hall has just completed his term as a national board member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and is national chairman of the performers with disabilities caucus for SAG, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and the London-based trade union Equity. He serves on the board of directors for the National Organization on Disability, as well as the Mark Taper Forum’s Other Voices Project, which promotes empowerment of writers and performers with disabilities in the American theater. He is also a member of the Mutual Amputee Foundation, where he visits recent amputees.

ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper recently sat down with Robert David Hall in his Los Angeles-area home to discuss his passionate love of music (which extends beyond air guitar), acting and advocacy.

Chet Cooper: You have quite a collection of instruments. How many do you play?

Robert David Hall: Guitar, piano and mandolin. I also used to play flute and French horn when I was younger. I played in a series of semi-good and semi-crappy bands and I loved it.

CC: Did you make them semi-good or semi-crappy?

RDH: (laughs) In some ways semi-good, I think.

CC: Do you still perform?

RDH: Yep. My friend and I play two or three times a year. One of our buddies is a studio harmonica player who’s outrageously talented and we have a few guitar players who are great. I pretty much spent my twenties as a musician and taking acting classes. I loved it. I was at UCLA getting As and Bs in English and creative writing, basically trying to stay out of the Army. All I really wanted to do was play music. At some point you turn 27 or 28 years old and you say to yourself, “God, I’m getting up there.” You think you are so old at that age. That’s when I got into radio. The day of my accident I worked the morning shift on a local radio station, I wrote copy for an ad agency for two hours and then I took an acting class. I was like the guy who didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. A musician, a voice-over guy, an actor…

CC: A surfer?

RDH: I was never much of a surfer. Back in the day—I’m a bit older than you (laughs)—we had long boards and we didn’t use ankle leashes the way they do today. The first time I almost died was surfing; I got hit on the head with a board. I went under and started swimming until I hit the bottom of the ocean. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m going the wrong way. Do I have enough air to get back up?” If you’re a surfer you know the feeling.

CC: Absolutely. And the big boards hurt when they conk you in the head.

RDH: Boy do they ever.

CC: But it’s nothing like getting hit by a semi truck!

RDH: (laughs) No kidding. Here’s the abridged version of the story because I hadn’t thought about it for 20 years or so until CSI people started asking me, “How did you become disabled? What’s the deal?”

It was July 10, 1978, a special day because I was selling my Volkswagen. I had washed and waxed it, and the buyer was going to give me twelve hundred bucks for it—the most money I had ever gotten in my hand at one time. I was going to buy my first new car—a Honda Civic, I think. I was heading north on the San Diego Freeway at about two o’clock in the afternoon, and there was a lot of construction. Coming the other way was a truck driver hauling a double-wide load of dirt or gravel. The guy had just stopped off at a bar for a six-pack lunch, and he went right through the chain-link fence dividing the highway and ran me over. He just came out of the blue. I tried to react but he was on me, and I was trapped under tons of metal. The freeway was chaotic; others had been hit by the truck and people were kind of unaware of me. So I’d survived the crash, but…

CC: Wait a minute, so you did survive?

RDH: I survived.

CC: Okay, good.

RDH: (laughs) No, I died and came back; I’m reborn. Seriously, I knew I was injured, but I didn’t know quite where I was. I figured something really horrible had happened, and then my gas tank exploded. Referring to me, I heard a cop yell, “Forget about him!” They were afraid the truck’s gas tank was going to explode. When I heard that cop I started screaming my lungs out like I’ve never screamed before and I hope to never scream again. Two guys, a welder who had just retired and another trucker, jammed a fire extinguisher into where they thought I might be and they managed to put out the fire. I remember the sounds and the smells, and I remember a million people all around me.

CC: What was going through your mind at that time?

RDH: It’s funny what you think about during chaotic or traumatic times. I had just bought a new pair of Levis and I remember looking down and they were black. I thought, “These were blue jeans—they’re not black, they’re supposed to be blue.” Some of the guys came to visit me later in the hospital and they said I’d been one of the funnier guys they had ever scraped off the highway. I said, “Funnier? What do you mean?” I had been in shock, and I guess at the time I was convinced that if I stopped talking I would die, so—according to them—I’d babbled like nobody they had ever heard. I do remember telling them what I’d studied in school, my favorite records, my favorite movies, every girlfriend I’d ever had, where I lived, who my brother and sisters were. They said, “You yakked all the way to the hospital. When they finally jammed all the anesthesia into you, you shut up.”

CC: Were you burned?

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Read the rest of the interview with your order of ABILITY Magazine. Other articles in the Robert David Hall issue include Letter From The Editor, Gillian Friedman, MD; Humor: Cell It Somewhere Else; Headlines: MS, Alzheimer's, Flu Benefit & Tsunami Relief; Senator Harkin: Disability Rights Abroad; Media Access: Pursuing Inclusion and Representation; Behavior-Based Interviewing: Identifying Ability; Innovations: Balance Sport Wheelchairs; Motor Vehicle Accidents: Frightening Statistics; Test Drive: Get Off Your Knees; Recipes: Coast to Coast Cuisine; Ability Federation; Events and Conferences... subscribe!

More excerpts from the Robert David Hall issue:

Blind Boys of Alabama: Jimmy Carter

Tech Section: Accessibility for Everyone

Religion & Spirituality: The Health Connection

Jun Q'anil: One Who Walks the Way

Cancer Dance: The Journey of Cathy McClain Kaplan